September in the Atlantic Coast Conference means many things. Among them:

Alumni talking about basketball.

Saturdays too hot for football.

Conference weaklings being routed by national powerhouses.

League coaches declaring the league is stronger and more balanced than ever.

The ACC has upgraded its football considerably in the last 10 years. It has gone from poor to mediocre.

Maryland's 1976 team went into the Cotton Bowl undefeated, ranked fourth in the nation. It was embarrassed by Houston, falling behind, 21-0, in the first quarter. Last year, North Carolina was undefeated and ranked seventh in the country when it went to Oklahoma. It came home a 41-7 loser.

Still, the Tar Heels were the class of the league a year ago. This year, they will not be as good; gone is the heart of a superb defense and a large chunk of the offensive line.

But they must be rated as the favorites, although Maryland, Clemson and N.C. State may challenge.

A look at the teams:

NORTH CAROLINA: The Tar Heels have some major holes to fill, especially on the lines and in the secondary. They play a weak nonconference schedule and since they play Clemson at home, their toughest challenge of the season may come at Maryland.

Tailback Amos Lawrence is gone after four 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Kelvin Bryant, who also gained 1,000 yards, is back, as is quarterback Rod Elkins, unspectacular but reliable.

Dick Crum's teams usually play good defense so, although the Tar Heels may not hold opponents to 130 points in 12 games (41 lost to Oklahoma) like last year, they will hang in. Probably well enough to win the conference title.

MARYLAND: It will be more of the same in College Park this season. Tailback Charlie Wysocki will carry the ball 40 times a game, the defense will be solid and the record will be somewhere close to last year's 8-4. The Terps have one thing going for them this year: Penn State, 26-1 against Maryland, is off the schedule.

CLEMSON: Coach Danny Ford needs a big year to ensure he won't be gone come season's end.

In 1978, Charley Pell led Clemson to an 11-1 record, the ACC title and a No. 6 national ranking. When he left for Florida, Ford took over.

The record dropped to 8-4 the next year and to 6-5 last season. In addition, a number of players left school because of disagreements with the coaching staff and Clemson is under NCAA investigation for allegedly offering recruits money.

This is a crucial season for Ford; nothing less than a bowl bid is likely to save his job.

He has a potentially devastating passing combination in quarterback Homer Jordan and wide receiver Perry Tuttle, some good linebacking and an inexperienced secondary. He must find a replacement for place-kicker Obed Ariri.

N.C. STATE: Tol Avery has a year of experience at quarterback and Monte Kiffin has a year of ACC coaching experience. That combination should mean improvement over last year's 6-5 record.

Avery was inconsistent last season. The Wolfpack rose and fell with him since the backfield never recovered from the graduation of Ted Brown and the defense was just learning.

This year, everyone knows a bit more, including Kiffin, who added some spark to the staid ACC by, among other things, showing up at practice dressed as the Lone Ranger and riding a horse.

VIRGINIA: Dick Bestwick has done the seemingly impossible in his five years at Virginia: he has made the Cavaliers respectable. The last two seasons have produced 10 victories and several near-misses.

The question becomes: Can Virginia go further? The key rests with quarterback Todd Kirtley, wide receiver Greg Taylor and a young defense.

WAKE FOREST: Two years ago, innovative Coach John Mackovic and quarterback Jay Venuto put together a series of upsets that led to an 8-4 record and a Tangerine Bowl bid. Last year, the Deacons were less spectacular, but respectable at 5-6. This year, Mackovic is coaching in Dallas and Venuto is trying to make it in pro football. Al Groh is the coach, the lines are young and the schedule tough.

Groh still has Wayne Baumgardner, Kenny Duckett and Phil Denfield to catch passes for him, perhaps the best combination in the ACC, especially the superb Baumgardner. But he must find someone who will get them the ball. Defense is suspect, too.

With South Carolina, N.C. State, Auburn and and Virginia Tech as the first four opponents, Groh could find the early going tough.

DUKE: Barring a miracle that would make the parting of the Red Sea look like a cheap trick, this will be Red Wilson's third and final year at Duke.

The Wilson era already has produced the worst record in school history, the school's first two last-place finishes in the ACC, four victories in two seasons and a revolving door for assistant coaches.

Expect more of the same this season, which starts with games at Ohio State and South Carolina.

The only bright spot is sophomore quarterback Ben Bennett, the ACC rookie of the year last season. He may keep Duke close in some games but isn't likely to produce an improvement on last year's 2-9 record.